“How far does conceding to the popular mainstream strip a text of its literariness?”
(Explore the ways in which your chosen essay texts negotiate competing demands of ‘literary’ and ‘the popular’)
William Faulkner said of Ernest Hemingway: ‘He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary’ (UOI, 1947) attempting to demean the literariness of his works. Hemingway responded; ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.’ (Ross, 1950) His response to Faulkner’s elitism suggests that a text does not have to adhere to the implicit, often judgemental rules that define a piece of work as literary in order to be worthy of such a title. Using the poems of Linton Kwesi Johnson and The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins, I will analyse how both authors navigate the fine line between what is popular and what is literary, and whether this affects the overall impact of their work or its integrity as literary fiction. I intend to argue that a text does not have to present itself in a ‘literary’ fashion in order to be considered worthy of the term literary, and similarly, literary texts can exist without conforming to the demands of mainstream culture whilst still being appreciated by modern society.
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In its simplest definition, literature is simply a written work; it is only when we place the boundaries of what is considered intellectual, or ‘art’, upon it that there becomes any kind of speculation as to whether a writer’s work is literary or not. In contrast, popular culture is a term associated with primarily Western entertainment, news, technology and sports. In its initial conception, the idea of ‘popular’ was one associated with the uneducated working class, in comparison to the ‘literary’ culture of the upper classes. Pop culture was “the culture of those outside the power establishment; it was entirely separate from – scorned and excluded by – those in power, who had their own “official culture” (Berrong, 1986). As a result, there is an ongoing elitism toward ‘popular culture’, with many labelling it trite or unintelligent, or suggesting that “low culture stress substance, form and being totally subservient; there is no explicit concern with abstract ideas or even with fictional forms of contemporary social problems and issues content to depict traditional working class values.” (Gans, 2008) As a result, creators and audiences of popular culture are by association considered to be superficial or lacking in intellect.
‘Popular’ fiction is defined as ‘plot-driven fictional works, written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre,’ (French, 2010) so as to appeal to mainstream readers who buy into the pre-existing format because it is familiar, recognisable and easily digested. These so-called conventions of popular fiction are “specific settings, roles, events and values that define individual genres and their subgenres” (McKee, 1997) and often, publishing houses are known to present obligatory guidelines for authors to follow in order to have their works considered for publication. Any literature in fitting with these conventions is usually considered separate from ‘literary’ fiction by critics for being stereotypical and poorly written; those texts are created solely to provide escapism to its readership as opposed to meaningful, carefully crafted prose that might incite thought or action. Literary fiction refers to works that hold so-called ‘literary merit’, which here means that they comprise of political commentary, comments on societal hegemonic ideologies and the human condition. Like its popular counterpart, literary fiction is written purposely with its own set of conventions in mind, with the difference being that the focus of the works involved lingers more on themes than on fast-paced plot progression or audience appeal. It is arguable that pop culture is the easiest way to appease the mainstream, an audience fundamentally made up of young people; technology has transformed ‘culture, especially popular culture, into the primary educational site in which youth learn about themselves and the larger world’ (Giroux, 2000). There has always been contentious debate regarding the discrepancies between high art, a category into which literature falls, and popular culture. However, it is arguable that this debate is obsolete; the distinction between the two is blurred – just because a piece of work is easily accessible and appeals to the masses, does not necessarily sacrifice its credibility or deem it an unintelligent piece of work that is lacking in thought. A televised adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or Baz Luhrman’s modern reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for instance, could be considered literary in an intertextual manner, being as their origins hail from classic literature. For instance, author John Storey would argue that “the quantitative definition of culture has the problem that much ‘high culture’ is also popular” (Storey, 2014), making the two difficult to separate into distinguishable categories. It also could be said that pop culture is more intrinsic to society than so called “high art”, because it wields so much influence over the general public and which media they do or do not consume; ‘in the struggle over the symbolic order that characterizes our times, popular culture – developed by name brands and various forms of media, including the Hollywood film industry – is crucial in creating the identities and representations that our youth embrace’ (Reynolds 2006).
Linton Kwesi Johnson is a Jamaican writer based in the United Kingdom – the second living poet, and the only poet of colour, to be immortalised in the Penguin Modern Classics collection. Johnson is a dub poet – a genre that is, according to him, “overcompensation for deprecation” – and as a writer, refuses to conform to English standards of poetry; he uses Creole patois as a political statement, defying the expectations society holds for poets. This phonetic, unstandardized transcription of his own language is certainly not that of great literary figures Jane Austen, George Orwell or Charles Dickens, and yet, he has been awarded the Golden PEN award in 2012 for “a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature”. His idea of poetry has been passed through generations, and did not simply consist of standard Received Pronunciation English or what was deemed publishable but included traditional slave songs. Johnson’s poetry is heavily inspired by the Black Panther movement, a group in which he became active during his school years; their belief being that violence in the face of constant racism is necessary, using militant revolutionary force against the racist police and segregation of 1960’s London. He himself describes his writing as “a political act [â€¦] poetry was a cultural weapon” (Wroe, 2008). It was during Johnson’s childhood that the SAS law, or the 1824 vagrancy act, was reintroduced, which enabled the police to arrest someone they suspected had intentions of committing a crime, allowing police to exploit and arrest people of colour in London without any evidence. The subject matter of his poetry is usually political, depicting his experiences as an African-Carribean living in Britain, but has also focused on foreign policies and police brutality.
Johnson’s poem ‘If I woz a tap natch poet’ serves not only as an example of his subversion from the conventions of ‘literary’ work but simultaneously describes his rejection of the canon, and his “interstitial position between musician and poet, between “high’ art and popular culture, between politics and aesthetics” (McGill 2003). For instance, he begins “if I waz a tap-natch poet, like Chris Okigbo, Derek Walcot ar T.S Eliot” (Johnson, 2004); the opening challenges any predispositions suggesting that canons operate according to transparent principles of coherency or homogeneity. Chris Okigbo signals an alternative to the Western Canon advocated by critics. In contrast, Derek Walcott is a Nobel laureate, and his appearance suggests a movement back towards conservative tastes. However, the inclusion of T.S. Eliot demonstrates that the canon Johnson is crafting is unfortunately one made up entirely of people of colour. He continues by saying if he were ‘top-notch’ himself, he would write a poem ‘soh dyam deep/dat it bittah-sweet’ (Johnson, 2004), implying that the works of Okigbo, Walcott and Eliot create work that is ‘deep’ or poses intellectual questions, a prerequisite of literariness. Moreover, the poem appears to carry another irony when analysed more thoroughly in that T. S Eliot appears as a ‘token’ white poet, which is reflective of the way in which right-wing institutions that anthologise the zeitgeist of the times, such as anthologies, are known for including very few people of colour, sometimes just a single person, to demonstrate supposed diversity and avoid criticism or backlash from minorities.
On perhaps the other end of the literary spectrum to Johnson is Suzanne Collins, an American writer, renowned for her young adult dystopian trilogy The Hunger Games. She was born in Harvard, Connecticut but being the daughter of a military officer, consistently moved across America. Consequently, inspired by her father’s career in the Air Force, her work tackles themes of war and its effects on the world, including poverty, starvation and innocent civilian death. The Hunger Games is set in Panem, a post-apocalyptic America made up of the Capitol and 12 surrounding districts; every year, two children from each district, male and female, are chosen to take part in an obligatory, televised fight to the death, known as the Hunger Games. The staggering popularity of her work resulted in her being named one of Time magazine’s “most influential people of 2010” and as of March 2012, became the best-selling Kindle author of all time. It is not unusual for creators of literature to use so called ‘pop culture’ tropes and appropriate them into high culture works; with the blurred lines of literary and popular first identifiable in the Romantic period where romance fiction became a substantial influence on future literature, despite having been previously disparaged. More recent examples include Andy Warhol’s use of the Campbell soup can in his pop art, as well as artist Jeff Koons conceptualising kitsch and pornography, subject matters often vilified for lacking in culture or finesse, to create new work which is supposedly worthier of the label ‘high art’.
This same technique of intertextuality and the idea that any one piece of literature is created by combining several others is arguably evidenced in Collins’ dystopian novel; on the surface, it is a young adult romance implementing the typical formulaic conventions and character archetypes evidenced in the majority of mainstream pop culture, arguably inspired by the critical success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga. However, when discussing the origin of The Hunger Games, Collins cites the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur as the most significant inspiration for her book – a classic Greek tale wherein Minos forces the people of Athens to sacrifice 14 women and children to be slaughtered by the Minotaur in the never-ending labyrinth. She also interweaved the concept of the Roman gladiator games; “an all-powerful and ruthless government, people forced to fight to the death, and the game’s role as a source of popular information” (Scholastic, 2010) and in doing so, she successfully brings renowned, classic Greek literature to the mainstream audiences, albeit in a more easily digestible fashion, by reimagining the stories in a fashion that appeals to pop culture fans.
Contrastingly, Johnson’s poetry focuses not on fabled morality tales, but on real life issues of racism, segregation and police brutality, particularly in London, where he grew up. It can be assumed that, as this is not a topic to which popular culture utilise for its audiences, he does not concern himself with the opinions of critics, or of his audience for that matter, on his work. It is my understanding that it is more important for Johnson to promote anti-racial messages and protest against the mistreatment of people of colour. Johnson himself said that writing anti-establishment poetry during the Race Riots could be considered an act of protest, an act that could have been to his great detriment as a result of the United Kingdom’s fervent racism. This shows Johnson to have integrity – he is writing about what he believes is important and worth saying; one way to perform a ” test of literary merit must be, first, the sincerity of the writer. I would be willing, I think, even to add the seriousness of purpose of the writer” (Peters, 2006). From this, one can argue that Johnson’s sincerity in his writing of his experiences, and his determination to express anger and encourage reactions to political issues makes his work literary. In ‘If I waz a tap-natch poet’, he purposely distinguishes himself from any of the other writers he mentions; he seems to exist in a liminal space, and it is difficult to discern where he sees himself within the hierarchy of literary and popular. It is arguable that he doesn’t consider himself a part of either category, because neither of them serve any importance to him. However, whether a text is deemed literary or popular is very rarely a decision made by its own creator; Johnson is simply distancing himself from the process, as he feels it is unnecessary. Although his work holds no evidence of popular culture references, it is certainly popular amongst a specific minority group; people of colour. They have experienced many of the atrocities he writes of, and can relate to them in a way that the white Western mainstream cannot. As a result, I would argue that Johnson’s writing is certainly ‘popular’ amongst a niche audience, and that appealing to the mass market is not the only category that makes a text worthy of the title. Johnson first became active in the poet community in school, but he was not published until 1974, in the journal Race Today. In the same year, Harper Lee’s controversial bildungsroman To Kill a Mockingbird was also released. Both Johnson and Lee tackle the subject matter of racism, albeit in different areas of the world, and Lee’s novel is regarded as one of the greatest of our generation. The difference between Harper Lee and Linton Kwesi Johnson is that one is a privileged white woman, and the other a Jamaican man of working-class background, whose poetry is not isn’t carefully pre-packaged in the standard Oxford Dictionary English, the mainstream being young white heterosexual teenagers, who of course, prefer to access literature in this way. Johnson is angry about his mistreatment, and that of so many other people of colour, at the hands of white policemen and politicians and civilians.
When declaring a text worthy of literary merit, critics significantly consider the moral or messages the story is trying to create, usually through the medium of symbolism or allegory. The metonymic concept of ‘bread and circuses’ becomes particularly apt when looking at The Hunger Games, as the Latin translation ‘Panem et circenses’ served as inspiration for the name of the novel’s fictional setting, Panem. The phrase, first used by Juvenal, who was degrading the sheep-like nature of common people, their selfishness and obliviousness to wider concerns and civic duty, alludes to an appeasement with a lack of substance. It refers to the way in which supposedly democratic governments make use of superficial distractions to satisfy the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace in order to continue to manipulate them for hegemonic gain. Although this could make reference to the Capitol’s attempts to placate the districts so they cannot overthrow their regime and dismantle their hierarchy, it could also be an allegory for the way in which popular culture works in the real world. When taking a Marxist reading of the novel, it is arguable that Collins was inspired by the Industrial Revolution, most noticeably the living conditions in 19th century Europe. Katniss illustrates this by saying “What must it be like, I wonder, to live in world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by” (Collins, 2008). Collins’ plot coincides with Marx’s socialist philosophy; Panem is comprised of two groups, the proletariat, or the people of the districts, and the bourgeoisie, or the Capitol. This highlights what is a fundamentally unfair system wherein the majority of wealth is held by the minority whilst the general public struggle to maintain a living. This is further evidenced by President Snow’s hosting of the Hunger Games, themselves, wherein his government hold complete power over the Districts and their people, who have absolutely no hope of ascending to higher status. Katniss, the protagonist of the novel, lives in the district that is hardest hit by the Capitol’s regime. She represents the lowest of the proletariat, whereas the closer the districts are to the Capitol, the more advantageous; “It’s tempting, so tempting, when I see the bounty waiting there before me. And I know that if I don’t get it, someone else will. That the Career Tributes who survive the bloodbath will divide up most of these life-sustaining spoils.” (Collins, 2008) Here, Katniss describes the ‘Career tributes’ are more likely to survive, having received training for their entire lives to prepare for the games. Whilst Districts One and Two still have to supply children for the games, this is a mere façade, bread and circuses; Snow makes the districts think everything is equal, but in actuality, the Career tributes are much likelier to survive and win the Games, thus maintaining the bourgeoisie whilst slowly killing off the poor. However, Katniss follows the Marxist ideology and “seizes the means of production”. Collins writes “Without a victor, the whole thing would blow up in the Gamemakers’ faces. They’d have failed the Capitol. Might possibly even be executed slowly and painfully, while the cameras broadcast it to every screen in the country” (Collins, 2008) By refusing to conform, rejecting the role of victor and encouraging Peeta to do the same, this forces the Gamemakers to change the rules and allow both to win. Katniss is still aware, though, that the Capitol would have the power to make an example of the Gamemakers to restore order. These allusions to Marxism and communist theory imply that there is a lot more depth to Collins’ work than it at first seems; by incorporating themes of real life class issues, she is commenting on societal problems and posing a moral question regarding America’s modern class system.
When asked how he would define literariness, critic Walter Van Tilburg Clark declared “the final test of literary merit, is the power to endure obviously such a test cannot be applied to a new or recent work, and one cannot, I think, offer soundly an opinion on the probability of endurance” (Peters, 2006). Here, he is arguing that the most significant criterion of the definition is that if a text can endure, it can be considered worthy of literary merit. It is not, then, necessary for a text to follow the other rules regarding context, connotations or conveying a higher meaning; if a text is popular, it is likely to endure. The Hunger Games Trilogy spent 50 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated to the screen as a multi-million dollar film series. Such a lengthy stay at the top of a highly-regarded rating system is suggestive of endurance, and therefore, regardless of the issues the trilogy presents in terms of stereotypical pop-culture tropes and character moulds, it can be defined as literary. In addition, the concept of literariness is one that is inherently subjective; particularly because aesthetic value is entirely based in personal preference. It is, according to critics, a “relic of a scholarly elite”.Similarly, the predispositions regarding ‘popular’ texts and it’s dismissal as uncultured also seem to be outdated views stemming from old-fashioned beliefs. The examination and understanding of popular culture, therefore, is necessary “to understanding ourselves, our identities and the world that surrounds us.” A text that is considered brilliant by one, will be terrible to another; we each have different interests and tastes, and there is never going to be unanimity when defining ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ and the difference between them. The study of popular culture enables us to consider literature in a less judgemental, more open-minded fashion, voiding the inherent laws of what makes a text literary or fundamentally ‘good’. Popular culture does not exclusively lend itself only to companies to churn out poorly-written prose lacking in value and increase financial revenue, although it is manipulated by those in power to detract from real life issues; just because this is the case some of the time, it doesn’t define all literature that falls into the category of ‘popular’ as unworthy of also being literary. The two terms are not mutually exclusive, and a text does not give up its right to being one by adhering to some characteristics of the other. The spectrum of defining literary and popular – categories, albeit arbitrary in nature, which are not binary opposites – in terms of literature, is, in my opinion, one that is entirely personal, and each individual will hold opinion on where any given text falls; that does not make them true, as there are no correct answers.
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McKee, R (1997) “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting” New York: HarperCollins. p. 87
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